Friday, 5 October 2012

Toronto celebrates a hundred years of Madurai Mani Iyer

By Raja Ramanathan

Over 50 years ago, when I was eleven or twelve, one lazy, humid Madras afternoon some friends of my mother were at home, and, for some reason, there was a harmonium lying around. At some point in the conversation, my mother took over the harmonium and played a series of notes. I had never heard my mother play the harmonium or sing, except for a few occasional bars, and, she would always stop, very self consciously, when she knew someone was listening. The notes were beautiful, and, I walked up and listened for a few more minutes. Knowing that I was listening, she looked up and said, ‘This song is called English Note…’ I asked her if it was composed by an Englishman, and, she said, ‘No. The song was made famous by Madurai Mani Iyer…’

That was the first time I heard of Madurai Mani Iyer. I am sure with all the record playing that went on at home, I must have heard more of his songs. However, the ones that stayed with me in those days, were not the songs of Madurai Mani Iyer or any of the other vidwans, but, what I heard Hameed Sayani play over Binaca Geetmala. In redemption of myself, I must say that I regularly listened to the Saigal song on Radio Ceylon at 7.57 every morning, just before leaving for college. On one visit to India from the Middle East where I lived in the 1980s, somebody presented me with a tape of Madurai Mani Iyer’s songs. I listened to them on my Walkman (remember that early predecessor of the iPod?) and the first song I listened to was ‘English Note.’ That song brought back memories that prompted me to listen to the other songs on the tape and I was instantly attracted to the voice. For months thereafter that tape would play incessantly in my car, and, wanting to make sure that I did not lose the music, I made a back up copy just in case the heat of the daytime sun in the Middle East, melted the original tape away or in some other way spoilt it. This past weekend, we in Toronto, had the exquisite pleasure of listening to Madurai Mani Iyer’s successor and nephew, T.V. Sankaranarayanan. As a bonus, we also had yet another Sangeet Kalanidhi play along with TVS, Toronto’s own Trichy Sankaran. The concert started a little late as TVS’s flight into Toronto got delayed, and, so, regrettably, I could not stay till the end, since the next day was a working day. From the moment, TVS, Trichy Sankaran and Vittal Ramamurthy (on the violin) started testing the sound system, we could sense that we were in for a treat. TVS and Trichy Sankaran have known each other for years now, and, both of them attended Vivekananda College, around the same time. I sort of looked at my wife telling her, “See the excellent quality that Viveka produces…” Having lived with me, a Viveka graduate myself, that was one statement she was not willing to accept. We found out during the repartee between TVS and Trichy Sankaran that TVS went on to do his Law and Trichy Sankaran did his MA, Economics. They shared snippets of their early days, both playing together as accompanists to their gurus, and, it was so wonderful to see the camaraderie that they have shared for over fifty years. I would have loved to hear more about TVS and his uncle-guru, Madurai Mani Iyer. Was it true that Madurai Mani Iyer often walked from Mylapore to the Connemara Library to borrow books by George Bernard Shaw? And so many questions rushed through my mind… The songs that they chose were all in some way associated with Madurai Mani Iyer, and, even two days later, the powerful articulation of ‘Bhuvaneshwariya…’ sung by TVS to the matching accompaniment of Vittal Ramamurthy and Trichy Sankaran keeps coming back. I had first heard the song, a composition of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, sung by Maharajapuram Santhanam, and, this rendering was just as energetic and powerful. Muthiah Bhagavatar, was, of course, Madurai Mani Iyer’s guru. I guess Muthiah Bhagavatar must have composed the song in his days as the asthana vidwan with the Maharaja of Mysore.

Talking of the famous Muthiah Bhagavathar, on my recent visit to India, I met a 92-year old aunt of mine, who in the late 1920s grew up in Tirunelveli. She was practising music one evening, along with her older sisters, when a car stopped outside their house. Cars, in the Tirunelveli of the 1920s were not commonplace, and, they saw that a middle aged man sitting in the car was listening to them practise. Hearing them stop singing, he came out of the car, and, asked them to continue. The aunt’s elder sisters recognized him as the Muthiah Bhagavatar who must have, in those days, been at the court of the Maharaja of Ettayapuram. The girls were hesitant to sing in his presence. He encouraged them saying that they were singing well, and, sat down to listen to them. Thereafter, he would often stop by and listen to these girls sing. At 92, my aunt still remembers his kind words and his appreciating the way she took down the musical notations. The concert, in Toronto, was arranged as part of the centenary celebrations of Madurai Mani Iyer’s birth anniversary, which, Wikipedia tells me, falls on 25 October 2012. As I was leaving, TVS, Sankaran and Ramamurthy were just winding up a beautiful rendering of Chakkani raja. I went back to the car and played English Note which I have on my iPod, a song that first introduced Madurai Mani Iyer and his music to me over fifty years ago. Wish the maestro had lived longer—at least till I started listening to non Binaca Geetmala music, and, then I may have actually heard him sing live. But, God, they say, takes early those whom He (or She, to be politically correct) loves. So, it was with Madurai Mani Iyer

1 comment:

  1. Informative write up especially for people like me who have a patchy awareness of the greats of Carnatic music.